The fast and the fragmented

imageThe spotlight shone on the three largest US carriers who will drive 4G adoption in the U.S. as executives spoke at conferences held by their partners and vendors this week  First, there were comments by AT&T’s Roger Smith at a Symbian conference  that AT&T would seek to standardize on one smartphone operating system. Many observers chortled that it was at best uncharacteristic for the operator that has pursued a handset strategy of broad selection and exclusives to do so, or that it was even unrealistic to think it could.

However, the key phrase was “AT&T-branded,” and subsequent dialog implied that this this would include handsets such as, say, the AT&T Tilt, but not devices that included brands such as Nokia and Samsung. In my further discussion with AT&T, they’ve backed off even this position, which seems to have been more of a wistful musing stemming from the frustration of developer fragmentation and support headaches.

Verizon, of course, has also felt that pain, and is seeking to offload some of that support burden with its open development initiative while expanding its handset choice via LTE. At a Cisco conference, CTO Dick Lynch said that it would have LTE “in service somewhere.. probably” at this time next year. That sounds a lot like operator-speak for a trial. Even so, if Verizon can get to mass deployment by the middle of 2011, it would mitigate the time-to-market advantage of Sprint and Clearwire. Lynch also made the bolder prediction that “broadband capabilities will be found in virtually every electronics product out there.” That’s rich fodder for another discussion.

And speaking of Sprint and operating systems, Google’s Rich Miner is slated to speak at Sprint’s developer conference hot off the momentum of attracting 14 new members to the Open Handset Alliance, including Sony Ericsson, which has dipped its toe deeper into the U.S. smartphone market with the XPERIA X1. Sprint Nextel, which has been supporting three network deployments (WiiMAX, CDMA and iDEN) and a variety of business models (Sprint post-paid, Boost pre-paid, and aggressive MVNO leasing in their brief heyday), has he most complex business among the four major carriers.

While the Open Handset Alliance is trying to mitigate Android’s fragmentation within its own ecosystem, the bottom line is that it’s impossible to embrace openness without additional complexity as operators must let different ecosystems compete. This is particularly true when, as Lynch said at the Cisco event, carriers are trying to move away from bundling the phone and service to where consumers — advanced ones for the near-term — will mix and match devices and data and the business looks progressively even less like the cable industry. As consumer choice expands, carriers will need to move toward more of a partnership support model as more traffic will be coming from devices outside of their handset portfolio. Take, for example, the early example of the Amazon Kindle. Consumers don’t call Sprint if they have a problem with it.

In a saturated market like the U.S.,and faced with the Internet chameleon, carriers have no choice but to diversify. By and large, only humans have a need for voice communications on a wireless network. But while Lynch’s prediction of universal broadband enablement may lie far in the future, devices — and the ways in which consumer use them — have nearly infinite usage permutations.

A Kensington cable reaches across the aisle

image At the launch of Windows Vista, Microsoft promoted Belkin’s Easy Transfer Cable, one of a number of cables that can connect two PCs via USB but require the advance installation of software (in this case, LapLink Software’s PCsync). Data Drive Thru, on the other hand, has long been making is own versions of such cables that require no separate software as it is integrated into the cable electronics. Data Drive Thru calls this “No Software To Load” technology and uses the initialism “NSTL” (not that NSTL) to brand it. The company’s earlier product, apparently named in an homage to Hank Williams, was the Move It On Over cable. It was later upgraded to the more meteorologicaly-themed The Tornado. Both featured retractable USB cables.

Data Drive Thru has long promised a cross-platform version of The Tornado and has one featured on its site called iTornado, but it still apparently won’t be ready until the first quarter of next year. So Kensington has stepped in with the more awkwardly structured and named Kensington Media Sharing Cable.

Still, it works quite well, bringing up a two-paned user interface for easily dragging files back and forth across platforms with a two-paned window similar to The Tornado’s user interface. Placing the rectangular bulge near the cable’s middle would provide more flexibility around the port and possibly easier visibility for its LED. It t would also be nice if there were the option to have one computer hard drive mount on the other computer desktop, but that’s why there are crossover Ethernet cables.

Belkin has also recently jumped back into the fray with the “Switch-to-Mac” cable that ships with software that enables a Windows PC to be used with the Mac’s migration assistant. I’m looking into whether it can also be used for more ad hoc data transfers.

Meet the parents, iPhone edition at Gizmodo Gallery

The pictured Cidco iPhone, one of the last gasps of a company that had made its name in Caller ID boxes and part of a class of information appliances called “screenphones” in the mid-’90s, may have predated Apple’s sleeker 3G version by a decade. But among the technoddities on display at Gizmodo Gallery last night, I was far more interested in some even older vintage tech than he 103″ Panasonic plasma TV since I will be seeing my fill of freakishly large televisions next month.

Among a 19th Century vintage portable typewriter, the first Sony Walkman, and the Bell Labs’ videophone used at the 1964 World’s Fair, there were also two Frog Design prototypes of an Apple tablet Mac and an Apple screenphone. You could almost hear all the iPhones packed in the room whispering, “Mommy?”

There’s a gallery of the gallery after the break.

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Calling shenanigans on the Coby $100 Midget PC

As I noted in my post yesterday about the Coby $100 “Midget PC”, there are a number of strange aspects about the story that broke the news, including

  • Lifting a quote about Coby from a New York Times story I was interviewed for two years ago
  • Quoting Robert Gee, whom I understand left Coby Electronics months ago
  • Including a picture of the device that looks like an Everex Cloudbook
  • Citing “insiders” intermingled with company representatives
  • The strange fixation on Moore’s Law in the story
  • Use of the name “PoqetMate.” Poqet Corporation was a manufacturer of small MS-DOS PCs that was acquired by Fujitsu.

In addition, I’ve never seen a tech story broken by the Arkansas IndyMedia before in my career. Why would Coby approach them with an apparent exclusive? And why would it be in the “Local News” section unless perhaps Walmart was going to be the exclusive distributor? Update: The site seems to be a community content site where anyone can upload any article they create without oversight.

So I contacted Coby this morning and, sure enough, its PR representative told me that “this story, or any announcement regarding a netbook, was not (emphasis theirs) initiated, condoned or approved by Coby Electronics” and referred to the information in the story as “erroneous.”

It looks like someone has been engaging in a different kind of fabrication than that which would have produced the Midget PC’s Longsoon processor.

WirelessHD gets closer to a TV near you

imageNews this week that Panasonic and Samsung — the two leaders in plasma television– had invested in Sunbeam, a semiconductor company driving the WirelessHD standard, was another strong expression of support for the company that is using adaptive beam forming, and other technologies to enable mulcting high-definition wireless video delivery. Even SuNbeam’s competitors have praised its approach, but have said that it would take a long time for the technology to come to market, adding in that when 60 GH is ready for prime time, they’ll be there.. However, a recent blog post by Erica Egg at Net says that Wireless (as well as WHDI) products will be shipping by the first quarter of 2009.

WirelessHD is also backed by Sony and Sharp, so it will also likely appear in LCD televisions as well. One key difference between Wireless and WHDI is range with WHDI having more of a WI-Fri-like footprint. As a result, while both technologies will be marketed primarily as cable-replacement technologies within the home theater (as has been the case for Belkin’s delayed pre-WHDI FlyWire product), WHDI should be more interesting to convergence-minded home networkers wanting a theoretically more effective way then Wi-Fri of bridging the classic PC-TV gap.

Coby’s Midget PC: I can’t look away (and had no comment)

imageThe $100 laptop concept has attracted attention from the likes of high-minded philanthropists, microprocessor giants, Handheld PC revivalists and even an eBay-scavenging Engadget columnist. But it may finally hit US shores this spring courtesy the unassuming and generally publicity-shy drug store shelf spelunkers at Coby — a race to the bottom indeed, even if the vendor of portable cassette boomboxes has been stepping up its digital design game of late. If reports are true (and I have reason to believe they may not be), the $100 Midget PC will run Linux and come with a 7″ screen but will be smaller than the original Eee PC that already tested the limits of keyboard usability.

As I’ve written, Linux-based ultraportables have a lot more potential as a true PC companion once they dip below $300. Consider that at $100, this product would be significantly below the price of most digital cameras and many MP3 players on the market. Still, consumers have higher expectations from devices they expect to achieve at least a modicum of productivity and this product still supposedly has the letters “PC” in its name. . I remember several lower-end competitors to Palm PDAs that never took off, for example, but they never had the draw of mobile Internet access.

So, assuming that the device has Wi-Fi (and if not, it’s a nonstarter or some kind of curiosity), the quality of the browser will be key. Here’s hoping Coby keeps a USB port for transferring some files to and from the device.although I’ll understand if it ditches an SD card reader or VGA out. More important variables are the previously-addressed keyboard and the critical screen. I briefly used a Coby hard drive-based portable video player last year with a low-resolution 7″ screen that was practically unwatchable. But they’ve done other niche products I’ve liked.

One other personally interesting aspect to this rumor is that I am quoted in this story, which seems to be the original source (though I couldn’t tell you what it has to do with Arkansas). However, I never spoke to the piece’s author. The quote is lifted from a New York Times story about Coby that I was interviewed for back in 2006. Also, the device pictured sure looks a lot like the Everex Couldbook. These and other anomalies in the article lead me to question its authenticity.

OK, WiMAX is coming. That’s now Clear.

imageQuite a few years ago I had some friends who got married but had family and friends that lived all over the country. To accommodate as many people as possible  they decided to have at least four separate wedding receptions. By the time the third one rolled around,, some of the glow of celebration had worn off.

The same might be said for what will now be called Clear, nee XOHM, nee simply Sprint’s 4G WiMAX network. With all the investments, trials,  JV rumblings and confirmations, a mega-7-way partnership and conquered regulatory hurdles, it feels like this is at least the fifth coming-out party for the first 4G network in the US.

By naming its service brand Clear — not to be confused with another company promoting expedience — the new Clearwire is adopting a brand that is simpler and more tangible as opposed to the abstract, Internet-evoking XOHM brand that barely had a chance to be promoted in the market. Well, at least it’s far less of a rebranding challenge than AT&T faced with Cingular.

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Microsoft XPS is still in print

image When I wrote for MacWEEK back in the early ’90s working with Rick LePage, Missy Roback and now IDC display analyst Bob O’Donnell, the most enduring product I reviewed was probably the first version of Acrobat.

I actually preferred a competitor called Common Ground from No Hannds Software that could produce a 300-dpi bitmap that eliminated the need to embed fonts. It also had the novel ability to create a Windows executable with the document embedded from the Mac version, eliminating the need for the recipient to download a Windows reader. Today, of course, using such a feature would be ill-advised in our age of rampant viruses.

Common Ground was eventually acquired by enterprise software vendor Hummingbird and today there’s no trace of it on the company’s Web site as Acrobat ruled essentially unchallenged for more than a decade. That was, until Windows Vista with its recursive initialism XPS (XML Paper Specification). You may remember the hew and cry by Adobe regarding Microsoft’s inclusion of XPS in Vista. but it has become another Vista technology to see slow pickup like the kind I wrote about in my Switched On column a while back.

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DataPlay plays on

One of the biggest flameouts in storage at the turn of the century was DataPlay, which produced a write-once, copy-protected enclosed optical disc about the size of a quarter — in some ways the Universal Media Disc of its day. Along with Iomega’s 40 MB Click/PocketZip drive, DataPlay failed as the last attempts of optical and mechanical media to wrest control from flash memory for the future of portable devices using removable media. (I suppose you could also consider Compact Flash form factor microdrives but those primarily became embedded devices over their short run.) Had things turned out differently, we might be debating the merits of “discMusic,” not slotMusic.

As it was, both disc formats had at least one MP3 player released that supported their formats — the DataPlay-compatible iDP-100 by iRiver and the PocketZip-compatible HipZip by Iomega. The terse Wikipedia entry for DataPlay claims there was even an album released in the format by Britney Spears, which might have foreboded the company’s fall and modern-day attempts at a comeback.

In that vein, I was surprised to see the old logo as I was doing some research on Sonic’s QFlix burn-at-home DVD format for my next Switched On column. According to the now low-key Web site of the Colorado purveyor of “advanced optical solutions,” the company offers an external QFlix-certified DVD burner called the MovieWriter and a commercial “pre-key” QFlix-writing system for replicators.

More incredibly, though, it still lists the original DataPlay format in a product. The “biometric access personal storage device” includes an external USB DataPlay drive with 5 GB (10 discs) worth of media that is encrypted as it is written.. It also includes a fingerprint scanner although there is likely a good “security by obscurity” argument for the format. In any case, the security application is a dramatic contrast from the glitz evoked by the company’s large ecosystem-touting Consumer Electronics Show booth during its go-go years.

Welcome to the blogosphere, me

imageAs noted on this blog’s About page, Out of the Box is written independently of my employer The NPD Group, and I haven’t delved too deeply into NPD research findings here.

But as this blog starts gearing up for its fourth year, launching today is another source for my industry commentary that more directly considers the context of NPD’s information. The official blog of The NPD Group begins this week with coverage of Black Friday and will continue to focus on holiday electronics sales and other issues relevant to the consumer technology. I smashed the champagne bottle of a first post against the hull of her template just a few minutes ago.

Joining me on the NPD blog will be my colleagues Steve Baker and Liz Cutting while NPD’s consumer technology PR manager Sarah Bogaty will be managing things behind the scenes.